Once the queasy/funny tone sets in, Taika Waititi's Nazi comedy never steps wrong
JOJO RABBIT directed by Taika Waititi, screenplay by Waititi based on the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, with Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell. A Fox Searchlight release. 109 minutes. Opens Friday (October 25). See listing. Rating: NNNN
Almost as soon as Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit screened at TIFF, it was knocked in certain quarters for not being serious enough about its subject matter. On one hand, I sort of understand that: if you haven’t seen the movie, and you’ve only encountered clips or a trailer, the notion of a comedy featuring Adolf Hitler as a child’s imaginary friend might seem a little much.
Here’s the thing, though. Jojo Rabbit is about hero worship and celebrity culture, set in Nazi Germany. It’s dedicated to showing the effects of a propaganda state from within, taking the perspective of an unquestioning, adoring child whose entire existence has been defined by the Third Reich. It’s a comedy, but a powerfully dark one, and Waititi – who wrote and directed the film, and plays the young protagonist’s conjured Führer – is keenly aware of what he’s saying in every frame.
Jojo Rabbit is set in 1944, where 10-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) wants to be the very best Nazi that he can be, happily reciting the tenets of Aryan superiority and bouncing off to a Hitler Youth summer camp, egged on by his imaginary BFF, Adolf. Jojo doesn’t see what we see – that the Nazi war machine is running on fumes, squeezed between Allied pressure from the west and a Russian advance from the east, with an active resistance working to sabotage it from within.
Wilfully ignorant of reality, Jojo tries hard to impress his apathetic commander (Sam Rockwell) at the camp. Too hard, as it turns out the boy is almost immediately injured in a training accident and sent home to recover. Once he’s out of bed and wandering around the house, Jojo discovers his mother (Scarlett Johansson) has been hiding a Jewish teenager, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in their attic – a girl who used to be a friend of his sister’s and who refuses to be the scapegoat Jojo needs her to be in order for his belief system to function.
Waititi declares his intentions in Jojo Rabbit’s opening credits by directly comparing Germans’ worship of Hitler to Beatlemania, an apparently audacious move that provoked a huff of offense from whomever was sitting directly behind me at my TIFF press screening. Apparently it’s crass to point out the whole Nazi thing was built on a cult of personality. (Any resemblance to current politics is, of course, entirely coincidental.)
Working from Christine Leunens’s novel Caging Skies, Waititi shapes Jojo Rabbit into a clever companion piece to his 2010 coming-of-age feature Boy, another film about a kid whose fantasy world is shredded by realities he’s been doing his best to ignore. It’s just that the stakes in this movie are a lot higher, the satirical needle a lot harder to thread. It takes a while for the film’s queasy/funny tone to set, but once it does the movie never steps wrong.
It wouldn’t work without the cast, of course. Davis, in his first feature, does fine and even subtle work opposite his grown-up co-stars: I was reminded of Bill Milner in Garth Jennings’s Son Of Rambow, another film about a kid desperate to hold on to his comforting illusions as a way of avoiding real pain.
McKenzie, a Kiwi actor who was spellbinding in Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace last year, gives Elsa not just a core of steel but a palpable rage she’s more than willing to aim in Jojo’s direction when he starts to rattle off the anti-Semitic slurs he’s memorized. As they get to know each other better, the antagonism doesn’t disappear so much as refashion itself into a sibling relationship, another element that pays off beautifully in later scenes.
Johansson and Rockwell have smaller roles, but they make them count. Johansson infuses Jojo’s mother with an indulgent warmth that suggests a woman doing her best to shield her child from awful truths for as long as possible, while Rockwell laces the alcoholic cynicism of his hollowed-out soldier with melancholy and self-loathing.
As for the idea that there’s no room in the world for a film that makes fun of Adolf Hitler, well, that argument implies Hitler deserves to be respected, and I kinda have a problem with that. So does Waititi, who relegates the “real” Führer to a couple of archival clips: the only Hitler we see in the flesh is the version Jojo has been raised to believe in – an Adolf who’s just like him.
And that lets Waititi give the film’s trickiest performance as Jojo’s Hitler, slowly shifting from an enthusiastic sidekick to a desperate bully as reality erodes our young protagonist’s innocence. It’s a comic showcase, sure, but there’s something terrible underneath it, playing first on our horror that anyone could imagine Adolf Hitler this way, and then on Jojo’s own horror when he sees the truth.
See for yourself. The movie knows exactly what it’s doing.